SPJ Regional Conferences Focus on Wartime, Tragedy Reporting
Fisher, Holly, Cadwallader, Bruce, Aeikens, Dave, Langbein, Sarah, The Quill
Like any good quick-thinking journalist would do, Steve Kroft took what was thrown at him and made the most of a bad situation. He was in New Orleans last Sept. 11, working on a forensics story, when the terrorist attacks in the Northeast shut down airline travel across the country.
Temporarily stranded, Kroft said the best thing to do with his four producers and four associate producers accompanying him would be to "try to throw everybody together on a story. ... We figured airport security would be a good place to start:'
The keynote speaker for the April 20 luncheon at the combined SPJ Region 1 and Radio-Television News Directors Assocation (RTNDA) Region II conference at Syracuse University the CBS "60 Minutes" reporter stated bluntly that "scandalous is the only way to describe airport security" in the United States in the wake of 9/11.
He related how a former Navy SEAL and his red team were able to penetrate airport security "almost any time" they tried.
"There was an appearance of airport security, when in fact there was not," Kroft said.
"Everyone pretended up until 9/11 that the system worked," he continued. "We can't count on government to do the right thing. It will choose expediency every time."
He said in 1996 legislation that mandated the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to get computerized upto-the-minute tracking technology installed was formulated but was eventually killed in Congress. Sixteen of the 19 terrorist hijackers had come into the U.S. with temporary visas, but the "government had no reliable records of who comes and who goes."
"The dirty little secret is that terrorism works," Kroft said.
The guest speaker, who is a 1967 Syracuse University graduate, said a "sort of fatigue has set in" following the intense reporting of all things related to terrorism and Afghanistan post-9/11, and he fears signs of complacency have emerged. There still is no INS tracking system in place, Mr. Kroft said, nor have there been any INS shakeups or firings of personnel at the agency.
"It's been a bipartisan failure," he said.
Mr. Kroft concluded saying it is "our responsibility as journalists to find out whether that money (being spent) for antiterrorism is being spent wisely."
Much of the flavor of the conference workshops, which mostly took place in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, was laced with references or direct ties to reprehensible terrorist acts. Reporter Dan Herbeck of The Buffalo News, who with Lou Michael co-authored "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Tragedy of Oklahoma City," chatted informally about his long authorship ordeal on April 19, which ironically was the exact seventh anniversary date of the horrific event in the Midwest.
He later joined with SU's Joan Deppa, principal author of "The Media and Disasters: Pan Am 103," and William Banks, from the College of Law and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, to talk about reporting on biological and chemical terrorism and how difficult they would be to prevent.
Deppa also led her own workshop, called "The Lessons of Terrorism," which discussed - and criticized - in greater detail media coverage of the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, an event that had direct connections to SU, as 35 students were on that plane returning to the United States from London, where they had been studying for a semester.
Professor Bob Lissit, a former network news producer who writes for the American Journalism Review and is a consultant to law firms on the ethics of hidden camera reporting, led a lively yet soul-searching workshop on how media people might respond if confronted by a terrorist group that has taken hostages at a bank and threatens mass killings unless allowed to broadcast a message live over the television station that is covering the incident. …